The first time Glen Abernethy told Elections NWT there were ghosts - lots of them - on the list of registered electors in Yellowknife’s Great Slave riding, the fuzz was still on his political antlers.
In the leadup to last Monday’s territorial election, he walked the streets of the capital’s east side a two-term incumbent MLA with eight years in the legislature, the man tapped to oversee health and social services during the last assembly.
He told the Journal on Thursday nothing had changed.
“I’m not convinced the voter lists were even remotely accurate,” he said via telephone. “This was a concern I raised when I ran in 2007. I’d found people who had passed away on the list, they had passed away years before. In 2011 I got the voter’s list and I found people I had identified as deceased in 2007 were still on the list.”
Abernethy admits the population in Yellowknife can be challenging to keep track of, with people finding what they can get when they move into town, then moving into something better, or buying a condo, but he does not cut Elections NWT any slack.
“I’ve got units in this riding where I opened up the voter’s list, went to the house, and looked at the list and there were (apparently) 12 people living in this apartment,” he said. “When I knocked on the door, none of the 12 people lived there. When you walk into an apartment where they say there are 12 voters and there are none, that hurts the credibility pretty fast.”
Abernethy said he plans to bring his concerns to Elections NWT for a third straight time at a public de-briefing typically held after a vote.
“We’ve raised this concern over and over again. When MLAs were reviewing the report from Elections NWT (in 2011), we said you have to enumerate prior to the election, you have to do it, because (the lists are) pathetic,” he said, audibly banging a table for emphasis. “They’re awful. You have to find a way to remove people. You add people all the time, but you don’t seem to ever remove people. I’m going to push for an enumeration before the next election. I’m not trying to say the turnout wasn’t down, but I’m not sure it was down as much as they’re reporting.”
The disappearing, reappearing list
At first blush, Kieron Testart’s 280-200 vote victory over incumbent cabinet minister David Ramsay in Kam Lake appeared to coexist with the most anemic turnout in the NWT on Nov. 23, just 25 per cent. After conferring with his team, though, Testart, who helped run NWT MP Michael McLeod’s successful campaign, said voter turnout would have been between 35 and 40 per cent if the list had been more accurate.
“Through door knocking and voter identification efforts our campaign was able to eliminate more than 500 voters from the list of electors,” he said. “Many ‘voters’ had moved, died, weren’t permanent residents or were duplicated.”
Cory Vanthuyne, who believes the recount in Yellowknife North will confirm his narrow victory over fellow former city councillor Dan Wong will be verified by an impending judicial recount, also told the Journal the voter list needs some attention.
“I have lived in the riding for a long time so I know a number of people who have lived in certain houses over the years,” he said. “I obviously became very familiar with the voters list in the last 30 days and so there would be times when I could see a house I (had known) since it was built, and I knew there had been, say, three different families in that house since it was built, and all three families are still on the voter’s list. It certainly needs to be updated.”
Vanthuyne’s team took the errors into account and used a voter total about 200 to 300 names shorter than the official list to make their polling calculations.
“At the end of the day, we were actually fairly accurate,” he said. “Definitely, NWT Elections now should take the time to go back through that voter list and make sure it’s as current as possible.”
Kevin O’Reilly, who posted a narrow 14-vote victory over Jan Fullarton in Frame Lake, guessed the list in his riding was off by as much as 20 per cent.
“I really think that we need to do an enumeration, have somebody go door-to-door and to try to correct the list and bring it up to where it should be before the next election,” he said. “I think we need to invest more money to make sure that we have a proper list.”
O’Reilly had another beef, saying his son, a student in British Columbia, was unable to vote via absentee ballot because it never arrived in the mail.
“I had a couple of complaints about people who were going to be away from the riding, from Yellowknife, during the period where they could vote in the office of the returning officer from November the 11 to the 21,” he said. “So I think we’ve got to find other ways to encourage people to come out and vote and they can make it easier for them to do so.”
Expensive enumerations eliminated elsewhere
Elections NWT chief electoral officer Nicole Latour said the enumeration of elector lists, a labour-intensive process, has been phased out by virtually every other jurisdiction in Canada. She told the Journal the organization has been using a permanent list since at least 2007, when she was a deputy chief electoral officer.
Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island are the last provinces to phase out an in-person enumeration to verify the list of voters. Elections Canada has not sent a pair of enumerators to a doorstep since 1997. They even skipped Alberta and P.E.I. that year because elections had recently been held, and used the provincial lists instead to help build the National Register of Electors, which is regularly updated with data from provincial and territorial agencies, plus the Canada Revenue Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Post.
Elections Canada claims that through 2005, $100 million in costs had been avoided at all levels of government by eliminating duplication of efforts.
The NWT list is compiled from several sources including Elections Canada, the City of Yellowknife and GNWT departments including Health and Social Services. Driver’s license registrations are not used since Canadian citizenship is not required.
“We had our voter registration open for months, and we advertised to encourage people to check themselves out on the list, make sure they’re current, and to update it if it needed to be,” Latour said. “All they had to do was have current ID when they go in or mix and match … ID that we accept and go in and cast a ballot. It’s a little bit up to the elector themselves to ensure the accuracy as well. We can’t make assumptions. I think the list is in great shape.”
Latour added that she does not know what post-election public forum Abernethy referred to.
“I think the list, in terms of how we manage it, would stand up to some of the claims that have been made against it,” Latour said. “I feel pretty confident in it, and I haven’t had one complaint about it.
“The list is current, unless they’ve died, say, in the last month or two. We use our best judgement in reviewing the list. We have a review period, but we’re not free to just take anybody off the list and assume that they don’t live here anymore.”
Even in the capital, assigning residents to a polling division within a riding, which requires a numbered street address for a ballot to be issued, can be “entertaining.” Latour recalled the case of a houseboat occupant whose driver’s license described their address as “the red-and-blue houseboat on Yellowknife Bay.” He got a ballot.
“We have communities that don’t have street names, and everything is general delivery. Trying to assign them to PDs was fairly entertaining. We try to keep it as accurate as possible.”